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Sally Ride and Neil Armstrong: Space icons get new round of remembrance

Three decades ago, astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. She died in 2012 at the age of 61. NBC's Brian Williams reports.



Almost a year after their deaths, NASA is paying renewed tribute this week to Sally Ride, America's first woman in space, as well as to Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon.

Ride's day in the spotlight came on Tuesday, for a simple reason: It's been 30 years since her history-making flight on June 18, 1983. Thousands thronged to the shuttle Challenger's launch, wearing T-shirts and buttons emblazoned with the slogan "Ride, Sally, Ride."

"I didn't really think about it that much at the time ... but I came to appreciate what an honor it was to be selected to be the first to get a chance to go to space," she said during an interview timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the flight in 2008.


If she were alive today, she'd probably appreciate the honor even more: Sunday marked 50 years since Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. And on Monday, NASA named a new class of astronauts that included as many women as men — which is a first for the space agency. 

After her celebrated ride on the STS-7 mission, Ride went on to a successful career as a physicist and educator. She passed away in July at the age of 61, after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer — but the educational organization she founded, Sally Ride Science, keeps her legacy alive to this day.

To mark the 30th anniversary of Ride's launch, NASA TV is airing two tributes on Tuesday night: A look back at STS-7, titled "Sally Ride: A Ride to Remember," is being shown at 8 p.m. ET. "Sally Ride: How Her Mission Opened Doors," a program that was recorded at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, comes on at 9:30 p.m. ET.  If you miss those shows on TV, never fear: "A Ride to Remember" and the Smithsonian tribute are both on YouTube.

AFP/Getty Images

See images from the life and career of astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space.

See images from the career of astronaut and American hero Neil Armstrong.

Thursday is this week's big day for Neil Armstrong: The most famous of NASA's moonwalkers passed away last August at the age of 82, after suffering heart problems. He made history on July 20, 1969, when he left those first footprints on the moon's surface during the Apollo 11 mission. "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind," Armstrong declared.

Since his death, Armstrong has been memorialized in his native Ohio, at Florida's Kennedy Space Center and at Washington Cathedral. Thursday's ceremony is set in a different locale: Johnson Space Center in Texas, where Armstrong spent years practicing for his date with history.

Among those paying tribute will be Armstrong's Apollo 11 crewmates, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins; Ellen Ochoa, director of Johnson Space Center; family members and longtime associates.

The memorial service begins at 11 a.m. ET (10 a.m. CT), with a tree dedication ceremony at the center's Memorial Tree Grove following the service. Live video will be streamed via NASA TV.

The stream of honors won't end this week, for Armstrong or for Ride: President Barack Obama is awarding Ride the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously, in honor of her achievements in space as well as in education. Meanwhile, Congress is considering a plan to put Armstrong's name on Dryden Flight Research Center in California.

This weekend's supermoon provides a prime opportunity to pay tribute to Sally Ride and Neil Armstrong. When you look at that big full moon, just remember there's a "little corner" of the lunar surface that's named after Ride. As for Armstrong, here's what the moonwalker's family said last year: "For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down on you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink."

More about Armstrong and Ride:


Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.